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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Messenger - No. 303

One step at a time, Angela urged herself. 

The tread of her clacking heels on the marble floor reverberated in her ears.  Each stride accentuated the tremble racing up her legs and seemed out of rhythm with the musicians’ beat and the party’s vibrant atmosphere.

As she navigated the throng, another bellowing laugh erupted from the celebration’s head table.  Glasses clunked onto the white table cloth, sloshing claret drops onto the pristine surface and causing the china to clatter.  The trio of faces turned to her as she arrived and dipped into a brief curtsy.

"Yes?"  The bushy faced Minster cocked a fluffy brow.  His eyes seemed to stab into her, as if sensing her true purpose.

Angela swallowed and ensured her words emerged clear and humble.  "Pardon my intrusion Minister Treymon.  There's message for Sir Gerard.”

Shifting his cup aside, Gerard leaned forward.  His mouth twitch with amusement, his eyes wavered in wine.  "Well, where is it?"

"In the foyer, sir," said Angela.  "It was marked with some urgency and….”  She clasped her hands together, inched forward, and lowered her voice. “Privacy, sir."

His dark eyes glittered for a moment, suggesting some thought within their depths.  Slouching back into his seat, Gerard finished his cup and then rose.  With a tug, he squared the lapels of his tuxedo jacket and then clapped the second man on back.

"Have that filled by the time I'm back, Maynar."

"Filled and finished if you take your time about it," said Maynar, kneading his pudgy shoulder in the wake of the hearty blow. 

Angela regained her stoic facade as Maynar’s squinty eyes raked her laced gown.  Her dull sage seemed suddenly in need of a good scrub.

Meanwhile, Gerard rounded the table, balancing himself on the backs of vacated chairs.  "Where is this foyer?"

"This way, sir," said Angela.

She turned with an exhale, grateful to put her back to the two dignitaries and have the other in tow.  A rough sea of others eating, dancing, and conversing, surged between her and the glass-faced doorway leading from the hall.  As she started skirting the dance floor, the musicians perked up, strings and brass rising above the banter.  Angela nearly tumbled when a hand clasped hers.

"Messages can wait," said Gerard as he spun her toward him.  "I feel like dancing."

"I don't think that would be appropriate, sir."

"And who's going to stop me?”

Angela tried to free her hand but found his fingers taunt.  "I’m afraid I am."

"Why is that?"

"I'm not a guest."

"You work here?"

Angela gulped as he found her waist and settled a hand at the small of her back.  "Yes, I do," she said.

"But you're not from around here."

She balked at the unexpected jab.  "What makes you say that?"

"Your hair is darker than these northerners.   Your skin too.  If I had to guess, you're from the coast, nearer to my home.”

She ground her teeth even as she made her lips curve into a smile.  "I've been recently hired."

Gerard smirked.  "Then they’ll understand your confusion about the rules."

He swept her onto the dance floor, in between another couple decked in a tuxedo and sparkling emerald gown.  A spin later and Angela found herself against Gerard's chest, held tight by a sudden stiff arm against her spine and vice-grip on her fingers.  Gerard’s breath warmed her ears.

"I don’t think you work here,” he whispered.  “I think you're a spy.”

She cringed as the previous slur in his voice vanished.  "For you,” whispered Angela.  “And you're in danger, sir."

He jolted at the statement, locking his eyes with hers.  His broke the stare a second later and gazed over the crowd while drawing them into the center of those dancing.  A swirl of ebony and jeweled tones washed around them as they circled to the waltzing tune.

Gerard leaned closer.  "Which one?"

"Treymon," whispered Angela.

"He wouldn't."

"We captured his telegram this morning.  There's an assassin on the loose, here, tonight."

The music faded to a low rumble of cellos, encouraging spins and quieting their hushed exchange.  They traversed the marble during a rise in the violas and flutes.  Gerard accelerated their pace without losing the beat.

"What’s your message?"

"Directions to get you to safety.”

Gerard snorted.  "I'm not running like some coward."

"Then you're going to get shot, stabbed, poisoned or worse," said Angela.  She caught his eye and hardened her gaze.  "We need to get you to safety."

"You?"  His lips quirked into a hearty grin, one expanding as Angela bristled.

"There are others waiting outside,” she whispered.  “Ones who'd make less appropriate dancing partners."

"I'm afraid you'll have to tell them to wait," said Gerard. 

He maneuvered them to the opposite side of the room where the columned foyer became visible through the opened doors.  Slinging her arm through his, Gerard strode into the entry hall far enough to put them out of sight of his seat of honor and the two waiting for his return.  He plucked a pair of glasses with pools of champagne from a waiter’s tray and offered one while downing his.

Angela gripped the glass stem as Gerard inspected her with a thoughtful scan. 

"Why are you doing this?"

"If you die," said Angela, "the Council's leadership falls to Treymon and his family...and."  She escaped into the fizzing in her glass.  "Mine was in Loradno.”

Silence surrounded them in a bubble of sudden stillness, untouched by the music and banter so close by.   While bloodied memories tainted her thoughts, a colder part of Angela’s mind wondered if he had heard her, if he understood.

"I'm sorry," said Gerard.

A blink cleared a swell of rage- filled tears and she lifted her chin.  "I won't let anyone willing to massacre hundreds get command of an army, let alone a nation."

Gerard frowned.  "That was the Hepsbars, not us."

Gathering the oval locket dangling from her neck, Angela opened the clasp and retrieved the tiny page tucked within.  The brittle sheet crinkled in her fingers as she hurriedly unfolded the note.  Nimble penmanship crammed the sliver with a squat and fading paragraph, but the imprint of the seal at the end remained unmistakable.

Gerard's eyes darted over the order, his brow furrowing as he neared the end.  "That conspiring bastard."

"There's more evidence beside this communiqué," said Angela, tucking the message back into her locket and within the safety of her gown.

Gerard swiveled toward the hall, where music and laughter soared.  He stood rigid, like a hound sensing prey.

"Please sir," said Angela, hovering at his side.  "We need to leave.  You're not safe here."

"I haven't been safe for years," whispered Gerard, his voice a bare murmur.  He turned back, his shoulders straightening as if yoked now by a long debated decision.  "Thank your friends and find some safe place for yourself.  You'll have been noticed."

"Where are you going?"

"I won't run," said Gerard, "and I can't imagine my people would respect a leader who did.  I'll take care of this myself."

"But—" She grasped his arm, and then stared, wide eyed at her own hand.

Gerard gingerly extracted his limb from her grasp, and captured her fingers.  "Don't worry.  Treymon is not the only one with plans for my future."

"Please, sir," said Angela.

His grin returned, shaded by a malice intent Angela felt grateful was not directed at her. 

"Wait and see," said Gerard. 

After a brushed kiss on the back of her hand, he released her and strode into the hall.  Angela hurried to the doorway, tucking herself within the fronds of a massive fern.  Her thoughts spun on what to tell the others, and on Treymon’s response to whatever actions Gerard might take.  As she spied him passing through the parting crowd, she held her breath and prayed for the patience to find out.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Headlines - No. 299

Meredith set her coffee mug onto the counter.  "Has she told you why?"

"No," said Bert.

Sighing, Meredith filled her cup from the silver pot and returned the canister to its station.  A low buzz indicated the radio spewing the morning news, but she couldn’t focus through her worried musings enough to make sense of the headlines.   

Drifting to the kitchen’s main entrance, she stared toward the front door.  The last piece of luggage remained beside the hall closet.  Tags from a variety of airlines and hotels clung to the handle and dents marred the curved sides.  Through the living room window, she spied Natalie’s car parked alongside the curb.  The out-of-state plates with their government insignia seemed garish against the plain concrete.

Down the flanking hallway, the second bedroom’s door opened and shut.  Soft padding of slippers traversed the carpet.

Meredith slipped into the kitchen and pretended to pour a fresh cup.

Natalie shuffled in, her hair tousled.  Sleep made her plump cheeks sag.

"Morning kiddo," said Bert.

"Morning, Dad," said Natalie.  She hunched in a plush violet robe, one matching the fuzzy slippers keeping her feet from the tile.

"Want something to eat?"  Meredith motioned toward the refrigerator and then tipped her chin at the harvest of fruit by the sink.

"Coffee's great," said Natalie. 

Turning her back, she opened the cupboard and sifted through the mugs.  Meredith caught Bert's gaze, but he shrugged and flipped open the newspaper.

"Milk's in the fridge,” said Meredith, “and the sugar—"

"I remember," said Natalie.  She opened the door hiding the shelves of spices and collected the pewter sugar bowl.  "It hasn't been that long."

"Three years between visits is a long time," said Meredith.  She glided to the nearest chair tucked beneath the dining table and gripped the rounded frame.  "You must have a reason for this one."

"Meredith," said Bert to the financial section.

"It's our house,” said Meredith.  “She's our daughter.  I think we have a right to know why she shows up in the middle of the night."

“It was 9 o’clock.”  Natalie poured herself a cup and breathed in the steam.  The heat seemed to melt the tension stiffening her shoulders.  She managed a small smile when she looked up.  "I can't just drop in for a few days?"

"You don't just drop in without a reason, Natalie."

"Hey look," said Bert, pointing at the paper. "Isn't that your boss?  Williams or Wallace or something."

"Welkin," said Natalie.

Meredith frowned at the crisp tone invading her daughter's voice.  She stepped aside as Natalie darted across the kitchen and hovered at her father's shoulder.  Natalie peered at the paper, her features contorting into a scowl as she glanced along the column.

"It’s out already?"

Meredith squinted at the gray pages. "What’s out?"

"Nothing, Mom," said Natalie.  She returned to the counter and started spooning sugar into her mug.

"Oh my," said Bert. 

He splayed the newspaper onto the table and leaned forward.  With his liver-spotted finger he followed a line of text while adjusting his black rimmed spectacles.

"Which are you—" Meredith gasped and covered her gaping mouth as she spied the relevant headline.  She swiveled slowly, her eyes wide as she latched upon her daughter’s back.  "Natalie!"

Natalie set her spoon down with a clatter.  "It's not what it sounds like."

"It sounds like you had an affair."

"He was getting a divorce," said Natalie, spinning to face them.

Meredith thumped down her mug and crossed her arms.  "That's supposed to make it better?  Make it acceptable?"

"You don't understand what's really going on."

"Oh please, may my only child enlighten me."

Natalie pointed at the paper.  "They're bringing it up now to smear our environmental bill.  They want a distraction.  They want to undermine what's right by having everyone focus on this nonsense."

"Nonsense?"  Meredith scoffed.  "Sleeping with a married man is not nonsense."

"He was separated.  He’s divorced now."

Meredith shook her head as rational thoughts aligned.  "This is why you're here isn't it?  You're hiding from this."

"My daughter never hid from anything in her life," said Bert, adding his own level glower to the staring contest.

"Dad."  Natalie snagged her cup and listed against the counter.  Her gaze sank into her coffee and her whole body slumped.  "We thought it'd be better this way."

Meredith scowl faded into a frown.  "We?"

Natalie caressed the handle of her cup, a small curve lighting her mouth.  "I don't just sleep around, Mom."

"So you're still seeing this man?"

Natalie reached beneath the collar of her robe.  Her fingers emerged, pulling on a gold chain threaded with a diamond ring.  "We're engaged actually."

Meredith's jaw dropped.  "Natalie."

Natalie’s lips formed a tentative smile.  "Sometimes the best parts don't make it into the papers.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Detour - No. 288

Pulling her sedan over to the sidewalk, Carla peered at the passenger seat.  She wondered if the canvas was still warm.  Her lips had cooled although her heart’s thumping kept her blood churning like a greyhound circling a track.  She dropped her head, avoiding the glitter of the ring on her finger, but fell into the aroma of spiced cologne clinging to her sweater.  With a wince, she zipped her coat over the smell.

She jolted as the passenger door handle thumped.

Looking up, she froze as Eddie filled the window.  He waved and then pointed at the lock.

"It's locked," he said, his words misted and muffled by the car’s frame.

The idea to keep driving nearly pressed Carla’s foot upon the gas.

That’s not fair, she chided, you have to tell him.

So instead, Carla leaned over and pulled the squat plug.

Eddie swept inside, and rubbed his bare hands together.  "Damn aren’t you cold?"

He adjusted the knobs on the dashboard and a gust of engine-warmed air spewed from the vents.

"Thanks," she whispered.

“What kept you?"

She avoided the question with a glance into the side mirror and noted a brief gap in the traffic.  Flicking on her blinker, she darted into the flow.  With a shrug, Eddie buckled his seatbelt and shimmied against the canvas.

"I was thinking afterwards, we could catch a bite to eat."

Carla nodded absently, and kept her gaze on the road.

"Jess and Mable invited us over too.  You remember them from work?"

"Yeah," said Carla, unburying their faces from the throng.  Around the remembered mob, a fortress of cubicle walls, file cabinets, and computer screens created a maze in her thoughts.  She dashed through the mental warren, desperate for air, for light, for space.  Unbidden, another set of features entered the labyrinth.  He gazed at her, dark eyes attentive and encompassing like a flawless night sky.

"When's good for you?"

Carla blinked the vision of him clear and frowned.  "For what?"

"To have dinner with them.  I think they want to do it as a congratulations thing."

Her stomach twisted and her conscience urged her to speak.  "Um...about that—"

"I was thinking Saturday night.  You're done with class at what 7?”

“No, 8.”

“Yeah, we could meet them at 8."  Eddie retrieved his phone and started crafting a text.

"Eddie, wait."

"It'll just take me a second."  He frowned as a ding sounded and started reading the new message.

"Eddie,” said Carla, tightening her grip on the wheel as the surrounding cars closed.

He grunted in Neanderthal acknowledgement, his thumbs twitching once more.

The next traffic light threatened to flip to red.  Carla surged through and then the road filled with a barricade of glowing brake lights.  A sense of being trapped tripled her heartbeat.  She sought a route through the other cars, but they clustered around her like a smothering blanket.

Eddie glanced up as honks brayed in a jarring crescendo.  “Why don’t you head over there?  Or that way?”

Suppressing a growl, Carla veered at the second open space he’d pointed to, causing another driver to sound his horn.  The sudden long drawl of an eighteen wheeler made her jump.  The huge vehicle came up alongside her sedan, obscuring the far side of the street.

“Careful,” said Eddie.  He turned back to his screen as his phone beeped.

Carla ground her hands on the wheel, and darted into the far right lane, only to be cut off by a swerving SUV.  She pressed the brakes and bared her teeth.  They lunged to a halt and she crashed back into her seat.  For a moment, the desire to be anywhere else became overwhelming.  A car behind her honked and she shook her head.

"I can't do this," she whispered.  She spied an opening and pulled onto the shoulder.

"Whoa,” said Eddie, looking up from his screen with a scowl.  “What are you doing?  We're going to be late."

"I don't care.  I can't do this."

"It's just traffic, Carla.”  He snorted at the speeding lanes and cocked a jeering brow.  “You want me to drive?”

"No, Eddie. You're not listening."

"Of course I am, you don't want to drive."

"No, you're not...."  She took a deep breath.  "You're not hearing me.  I can't do this."  She striped the ring from her finger and held it out, the facets sparkling like rubies in the traffic’s ambient glow.  "I made a mistake."

Eddie looked at the ring with the intensity he usually gave his computer screens.  "I…I don't understand."

"Please, just take it," said Carla, her words blazing with a fiery edge.

Eddie reached up and plucked the tiny jeweled circle from her grasp.  "What…what happened?"

"Nothing," said Carla.

His frown deepened.  "Bullshit."

She winced at the hurt in his curse.

"I just can't do this," she whispered.

His phone buzzed.  Eddie latched onto the screen like a man searching for a cure.  "They're wondering where we are."

“I’ll drop you off.”

Carla reentered the traffic and navigated the final stretch of streets.  Even the low hum of the radio couldn't combat the stunned quiet.

Drawing up to the sidewalk once more, she kept her hands on the steering wheel and faced the odometer rather than the space on her left finger or the ring Eddie now held in his opened palm.  He stared at the jewel as if seeking the answer to an enigma.

"What did I do?"

"Nothing," said Carla.  "This isn't about you."

"That's what they say when it IS all about you."

"This isn't.  This is about me," said Carla.  "About what I need, about what I want."

"And you don't want me."

She cringed and forced herself to meet his wounded gaze.  "Not like that, Eddie, not anymore."

"When?"  He gulped and blinked furiously, as if to evade droplets pooling in his eyes.  "When did you figure all this out?"

"Before you asked."

"Then why'd you say yes?"

"I don't know,” said Carla, matching the anger leaping from his throat.  “How do you say no to a proposal?"

"By saying no."

She exhaled and fought to temper her voice.  "I guess I didn't have the guts then."

"And you do now?"

"Yeah," said Carla.  "I needed to, before it was too late."

Another round of quiet descended, punctuated by two bleats from his phone.  Eddie scanned each, and then tapped the screen into darkness.  He sighed, his shoulders sloping.

"Can you tell me one thing?"

"I can try," said Carla.

"Is there somebody else?"

"It's not about that Eddie."

"Like hell it's not."  He closed his ring-holding hand into a white-knuckled fist.  "Who is he?"

Carla stiffened in her seat as her lips blazed.  "This is my decision, Eddie.  No one's driving me to it. No one's waiting to take your place.  I just need space.  I need to figure out what I want and chase it down.  I know it's not getting married and working in the same old office for the rest of my life."

"What's so wrong with that?"

"Nothing." She tried to find a small smile.  "It's just not for me."

He hung in her eyes for a contemplative heartbeat.  "You're leaving town aren't you?"

“Maybe, I’m not sure where I’ll go.  I've got a lot of thinking to do, decisions to make.  This life works for you. I need to find what works for me."

"It was working," he said, stuffing his phone away.


He raised his free hand.  "Good luck figuring it out."

Exiting, he slammed the door, the bang cracking off like a shot.

Carla winced and stared at the wheel.  The thump of his tread dwindled, ending finally with the clang of the entry door into the theater.

After a few deep breaths, Carla raised her gaze.

The road stretched before her, full of stoplights and illuminated brakes.  A moment later all the red vanished.  The cars surged.  Carla joined them.

Halfway through the next intersection she felt weight slip from her shoulders.  A destination came into her mind, drawing her forward like a moth to flame.  She smiled and then a nervous but vibrant chuckle flew from her lips and filled the air.  In the next moment, she swore she was flying.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Intercepted - No. 283

Wendy ran her manicured fingers along the scooped neck of her dress and finished off her glass of water.  Candlelight glimmered along the damp edge marred with a hint of peach-tinged gloss and on the empty place setting on the table’s opposite side.  Nudging the salt shaker, Wendy evened the distance between the pepper and flickering votive.

A gust from the restaurant’s entryway fluttered the diminutive flame, and snared her gaze.  She teased her bangs as the maitre d' appeared.  He led a leggy blonde with too short a skirt for the width of her thighs.  The woman draped herself upon the arm of a thick shouldered bald man who looked more like security than a date.

Sighing, Wendy sagged back into her chair as the trio traversed the maze of tables housing the other couples murmuring in quiet conversation.  Some held hands. Others leaned so close the firelight played with the shadows on their faces.  She looked away as a red-haired tittered and flipped her locks over a half-bared shoulder while her companion leaned forward, his eyes wandering freely.

Gathering her water glass close, Wendy circled the rim and stared at the melting ice.

"Can I give you a refill?"

She glanced up as Todd, with his perpetual grin, arrived and offered a beaded pitcher.

"Sure," said Wendy.

"I'm guessing you're still waiting?"

Wendy ground her teeth.  I'm guessing you're still not getting a tip, she reasoned.  Instead of voicing the sarcastic jab, she gave him a lean smile and held out the glass.

Todd poured, making a show of the event by raising the pitcher to head height and back.

"I'll be back in a minute," said Todd.

Goodie, she thought.  Giving him a silent toast, Wendy settled back and took another long glug.

"Isn't it amazing, Rog?"

Wendy nearly spat the mouthful at the sound of Jessie’s purring voice.  Forcing herself to swallow, she clutched the glass and swiveled toward the entrance as if a massive hand turned her head upon her neck.  She cringed at the sequins sparking on the familiar ruby dress, the one she hung beside the maroon number and the honeysuckle pink she had donned for tonight. 

"I don't believe it," she whispered. 

Her arm shook, and she set the glass down before she spilt.

"It is pretty nice," said Roger, towering over Jessie’s head.  He adjusted his tie, the cobalt one that highlighted his eyes, and scanned the room. 

Wendy fled into a rapid study of the charger and plate set before her.  Roger's face, however, appeared on the white void, while Jessie's made-up features dotted the curved edge.

"Hey,” said Roger, “isn't that Wendy?"

Putting her hand to her stomach, Wendy fought against its desperate plunge through the seat as it raced her heart for escape.

"Maybe," said Jessie, her husky tone turning brittle.

Wendy shut her eyes as Roger's steps neared.

"Wendy?  What are you doing here?"

Gripping onto the tablecloth's extra fabric, she met Roger's gaze.  She avoided drifting to Jessie, who appeared at his shoulder like a pirate's parrot.  Tightening her grasp, Wendy forced her tone to firm. 

"I guess you didn't get my card?"

Roger frowned.  "Card?  What card?"

"The one my roommate said she'd mail for me."

He cocked his head to the side, and then glanced at Jessie.  All the blush on her cheeks couldn't hide the sudden blanch of her pallor.

"I put it in the mail, Wendy."

"Of course you did."  Wendy rose, and tossed her napkin onto the plate.  "If you two would excuse me."

"Wait," said Roger. 

He snatched her arm as she began striding past.  Wendy wobbled on her heels and stared at his hand, fearful of what she'd find if she actually met his gaze.  The weight of the restaurant’s communal focus sent a flush of heat throughout her body, as if she roasted before a stoked fire.

"What are you talking about, Wendy?"

"Did she invite you?"


Wendy found herself meeting his eyes. "Did she or was this your idea?"

"She did," he whispered.

"And you said yes."

"I didn't see a reason not to."

She winced and lowered her gaze.  With a tug, she escaped his grasp and resumed her stoic march.


"It's all right, Rog," said Jessie. 

Wendy didn't look back, but lifted her chin and strode from the dining room.  The maître d' jolted behind his menus and pinned himself to his stand, leaving the way to the entrance clear. 

Striding outside, the fading winter night swirled, rustling her skirts and reminding her of her checked coat and the purse she’d left dangling on the chair.  With her irritation boiling, Wendy stormed on.   She located her car even though the parking lot wavered in her watering vision like a vanishing mirage.


She hugged her arms, and ignored Todd's call.  Working through the line of cars, she found her waiting hatchback, the growing frost softening its midnight blue.  She stared at the driver's window, at the fastened lock, at her hunched reflection in the clouded glass.


She hunched closer as Todd came up behind her.

"You forgot your purse, Miss."

Wendy nodded her thanks and claimed the clutch with its string-like strap.  Todd lingered, swaying from foot to foot like a grayscaled metronome. 

"Are you okay, Miss?"

"I’m fine," whispered Wendy. 

Fetching her keys from within the indigo bag, she unlocked the car with a press on the fob.  She found a few bills milling between the slim collection of makeup and her cell phone. 

"Thanks," she said, offering whatever had found its way into her grasp.

"It's okay," said Todd, although his gaze flicked to her hand, and hovered for a moment before returning to her face.  "As long as you are."

Wendy clenched her fist and fumbled with the door handle.  She opened the car and nodded, wary actual words might shatter her thin veneer of composure.  Slipping into the chilled driver's seat, she slammed the door before Todd could offer any more consoling sentiments.  She focused on stuffing the bills back into her purse until his presence vanished.

The sense of being alone rushed in on his heels. 

Wendy squeezed her eyes shut around the first descent of tears.  They dropped nonetheless, hot on her cheeks, and plopping like weighted stones on to her bare hands.  Her shoulders shuddered as anger and embarrassment vied for command.  She let both swirl, alternatively pounding on the steering wheel, while covering her wracked gasps with her hand.  Thoughts of what she'd done, what Jessie'd done, Roger's ignorance, and the consequences of the evening, rode upon the rise and fall of her nerves, sharpening rage and then deepening a sense of loss for something she might now never have. 

A light rap on the window jerked her from the ups and downs.  Through the mist she'd added to the glass, she made out Roger's looming face.  He squinted as if to peer inside, and knocked again.

Brushing away her tear smears, Wendy checked her fingers for mascara streaks.  Dark blobs marred her skin.  Dabbing her eyes, she sucked in a rattled inhale before laying a hand on the window's control.  She rotated the lever, each thud lowering the glass another inch.

She sniffed and blamed it on the cold.  "What are you doing here?"

Roger grinned, a lopsided curve inspiring a tremble in her stomach.  "What do you think?  I'm meeting my date."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Repercussions - No. 279

The elevator dinged and opened.  Inhaling a deep breath, Ashley strode out and down the corridor.  She halted at the doorway filled with an opaque glass panel and letters naming the attorneys within.

Before laying a hand on the knob, she checked her silver-banded watch and allowed the intervening seconds to pass, bringing her closer to top of the hour and her scheduled meeting time.  The watch's pearlescent surface glimmered, like the Christmas lights when she had lifted the lid of the small case and found the jeweled time-keeper inside.  She recalled the hug, her father's beaming smile, and his stern reminder to make every second count.

This afternoon, the two hands pointed straight at their targets, and she knew no more delaying tactics remained.  If she lingered any longer, a tactful message from Bernice would make her phone bleat, and in time, her father would worry.  Not to mention the growing impatience of the police officers and detectives stewing in the building's main lobby.

Putting the four keepers of the peace out of her mind, she seized the knob and entered the office.

"I was about to call you," said Bernice from her seat behind the stump of desk occupying one half of the vacant waiting room.  She deposited the phone back into its cradle and pressed the intercom instead.  "Mr. Mason?"


Ashley cringed at the static version of her father's voice coming through the speakers.  The tinny echo seemed far too frail.

"Mrs. Grant is here to see you," said Bernice.

Her father’s pause nearly tripped Ashley's heart. 

He already knows it's over, she thought.

"Show her in," said her father.

Bernice stood and rounded her clutter, her wide hips giving the piles of folders and paperwork enough of a berth to avoid tipping them onto the checkered carpet.

"I know the way," said Ashley.

"This gives me a chance to stretch my legs," said Bernice.  Her nylons hushed against one another, like a muted cricket, and her knee length skirt thumped with every stride.

Ashley clutched her purse strap and followed with a quieter effort in her flats, slacks, and woolen coat.  Only the briefcase dangling from her other hand altered her gait, the burden feeling ten times what the contents and leather truly weighed.

Marching along the hallways, Bernice led past a darkened conference room and the closed doors of other offices.  Murmurs worked through the wooden panels, but Bernice spoke above them.

"Did you have a nice time in the Keys this summer?"

"We always do," said Ashley. 

The pit in her stomach expanded as she remembered the smiling faces of her children diving off the dock under her mother's watchful gaze.  She had been on the porch, looking down on them on when her father had joined her, when he had first warned her.

It's too late now, she reasoned.  Diverting her thoughts back to inane banter, Ashley forced a smile onto her lips.  "How have you been?"

"Oh fine," said Bernice.  She heaved a sigh heavy with unspoken problems too numerous to occupy the brief stretch of corridor.  "We make do."

"Don't we all?"

"Mmm hmm," said Bernice.

They reached the hallway's dead end, and she rapped upon the lone door.

"Is that you Bernice?" 

Ashley adjusted her grip on the briefcase's handle as her father's footsteps made the floor creak.

"Yes, Mr. Mason,” said Bernice.  “I’ve brought Mrs. Grant.”

A round of paper shuffling and a thump followed.

"He's been like this since Tuesday," said Bernice, lowering her voice and frowning at the door.

Ashley winced.  His message from that day repeated in her ears. 

"Recuse yourself, Ashley," he had said, repeating the words from their earlier porch interlude.  “Trust me on this, please."

But I didn't, mused Ashley. I was stubborn and thick headed, just like you'd taught me to be.

The shifting within the office ebbed.  "You can come in now."

Bernice opened the door, and Ashley sensed the woman tense through the thick layers of her tweed skirt and polyester blouse.  Within the office, the array of cardboard boxes stacked in neat rows gave the appearance of a fort wall under construction.

Bernice laid a hand on the doorframe.  "What’s all this, Mr. Mason?"

"I'll explain later, Bernice.  I don't want to keep Mrs. Grant waiting."

"Of course."  Bernice pivoted, allowing passage into the office.

Ashley endured the flick of Bernice's dark eyes as the other woman swept over her, the boxes, her father standing with his balding head bowed over his desk, and back again.

"Thanks, Bernice," whispered Ashley as she stepped inside.

She halted with her back to the entry, and fought not to jump when the door closed with a clack.  The truth seemed to hang in the air, thickening an impassible divide.  Forcing down a steadying gulp of saliva flavored of day-old coffee, she lifted her chin and waited for her father to look up.

He did so once Bernice's footsteps dwindled. 

The whites of his eyes had dulled; the sag of his face heavier now than it had been in the Key's tropical heat.  His shoulders sloped beneath his dress shirt, and the Windsor knot in his tie hung loose.  Even the suit coat, draped on a rack's limb, listed as if drenched.

"You wanted to see me, Mrs. Grant."

Every muscle in Ashley’s body clenched.  "Dad—"

"Please."  He raised a silencing hand, his golden wedding band catching the afternoon light cramming through the venetian blinds. "I'd like to keep this from becoming personal.  I'm sure my daughter would understand."

Ashley avoided a cringe, and replied with a curt nod as she worked words back onto her tongue.  "My investigations have brought to light the real cause of the accusations placed upon my client.  I wanted to see if you had anything to say on the matter."

"Doesn't this say enough?"  Mason swept his arm at the organized crates. 

"I'm not sure what this says," said Ashley.

"I'm leaving, retiring before this is all exposed.  I’m not going to let my mistake sink this whole firm, not after I’ve spent a lifetime building it.”

Ashley's mouth parched.  "So it was just you?"

Mason retrieved one nearby box and set it onto the center of his desk with a thud.  "You'll find your answers, all your evidence, in here.  Log books, names, the account numbers."

Inching forward, Ashley peered inside.  Journals and typed sheets stood in neat stacks, the bindings worn and edges crinkled with age.

She scowled and looked back up at his pinched face.  "Is this your way of striking a deal?"

"It's my way of coming clean," said Mason.  He sighed and another decade seemed to claim his features.  "I've kept quiet about this too long."

Ashley’s grip tightened on her briefcase and purse.  "And you tried to make it longer."

Mason lifted his downturned gaze, and a fire ignited in the brown depths, one she hadn't seen since she'd been caught with Adam Jenkins in his truck after the senior year homecoming game.

"I tried to keep you out of it," said Mason, his tone as torrid as his gaze.  "I didn't want you involved."

"How could I not be involved?"

"Not like this.  Not in Reynolds’ defense.  Anyone else would have followed the same breadcrumbs.  I didn't need you unearthing what I've done."

The heat in his tone sent her blood boiling.  "You would rather I'd been on the sidelines? Ignorant?"

"At least you would have been on my side, in my corner...Now...."  He looked away as if the sight of her pained him. 

Anger wrapped around Ashley’s heart, twining with guilt and sudden grief.  She eased her voice.  "I am on your side, Dad."

"You're defending...Him."

"Dillon Reynolds is innocent."

"I know that," said Mason, his words a near growl.  He stared into the box, the silence growing to smothering proportions.  When he spoke again, his voice had faded.  "Are they with you?"

"The police?"

Mason nodded without shifting his gaze.

"They're downstairs," said Ashley.  "I wanted the chance...the chance to talk with you before the arrest."

He lifted his eyes from the box, the weariness flooding his gaze.  "Well.  What more do you want to talk about?"

Ashley gulped, wetting her throat for the one question she had come to ask.  "Why?"

Mason scowled.  "Why what?"

"Why did you do it?"

She flinched as his eyes hardened in to muddy rocks.

"I think that's best told to my lawyer."

"It was because of us, wasn't it?  You did this for us?"

Mason's shoulders sagged. The hard line of his jaw softened.  He plunged into his chair, the leather groaning, and casters squeaking for grease.

"You could have told us," said Ashley.  She wove through the clutter and rounded the desk, dropping to a knee by his side.  "We would have understood."

He scoffed. "Understood not going to college?  Understood having to move to a smaller house?  Understood leaner Christmases?  No summer trips? Of cutting back on everything?"

He gripped the armrests as if fearful of sinking through the chair's seat.  Ashley laid her hand atop of his, shivering at the chill of her father's flesh and the frailty of his hand.  The bones seemed hollow, the veins ridges of ice.

Mason hung his head, his voice emerging like an echoed whisper. "I wanted to give you everything.  And then, I...couldn't stop.  These people, these promises, they wrap around you so tightly, when you want to get out they're strangling."

He drifted his gaze over the boxes, and chuckled, a bitter, pained sound.  "I guess the noose has finally tightened."


"No," he whispered.  He set his hand on hers and squeezed.  Vitality seemed to rush into his touch.  "It's better this way.  This way, it's over.  I don’t have to hide.  I don’t have to lie.  I don’t have to worry about Venzio or his thugs anymore."

Ashley fell into his eyes, and they glimmered with the weak smile curling his lips.

"Would you help me with the last part, Ashley?"

"Of course, Dad."

She fetched his coat and hat from the rack.  Holding them both, she hovered as he hauled himself from the indented curves of his chair, ones worn from decades of occupation.  He requested the coat with one hand, slipped it over his shoulders and donned his hat, drawing leathery fingers along the brim.

"Take that one," he said, pointing at the box of ledgers and notebooks.

"I'll send the lawyers back for them," said Ashley.

His faint grin wobbled, and he tipped his hat forward, shading his watering eyes.  He stuck out his elbow and Ashley looped her arm through the offered crook.

As they navigated the cardboard fortress, Ashley couldn't say who led who, or who needed more support.  Mason opened the door, and they crossed the threshold.  She waited as he took a final glimpse of the room where so much had passed, where the white of good intentions had smeared into gray. 

Steel seemed to drift into his spine as he shut the sight of his deeds behind the door.

"It's over," he whispered. 

Giving her hand a pat, they turned and side by side walked into the abyss of waiting repercussions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Trailhead - No. 272

Martin adjusted the overhanging lamp, barely noting the sting of the flame’s heat bleeding through the green shade and scorching his fingers.  The amber pool of light on his worktable shifted, and he brought his magnifying glass to his weary eye.

The bulbous slug lying before him seemed to cringe.  With his tweezers, Martin nudged the gastropod, elongating its striped form.  The chestnut spots and gray flecks appeared ten times their normal size in the round lens but Martin tromboned his arm, gaining a sharper view.

From beyond the world of his worktable, he noted footsteps nearing.

"He's been in there for days.  Ever since...."

Martin recognized Adele's voice, but the Cook’s tone carried an unfamiliar, nervous quality.  Shrugging off the curiosity, Martin flipped the slug over and peered at its parched underbelly.

A round of tentative raps broke his study’s quiet.  Wincing, Martin leaned closer to the specimen, his curls brushing against the lamp and sizzling.

The knocks rapped again, and then the door knob squealed.

"Mr. Adams?"  The hinges squeaked, and the papers piled before the entrance tumbled as Adele opened the door.  "Oh, Mr. Adams!"

Adele scurried to the collapsing piles and began propping up towers about to teeter while herding those spilling across the carpet.

"Don't mind those," said Martin.

"But sir.  The mess!"

Martin shook his head.  Plucking the slug between the tweezers, he deposited the creature back into the terrarium.

"Adele," said another voice. 

His accent scratched at the edge of Martin's memory.  A face failed to emerge and enlighten him, so Martin put the oddity aside and watered the potted ferns cluttering one side of the container.  Their tapered leaves drooped, he suspected from a dearth of sunlight.  Martin flinched at the idea, and set the watering can aside.

Adele huffed as if regaining her feet and flapped out her skirts. 

"Mr. Adams," she said, coming to his elbow.  She clasped her wrinkled hands at her aproned waist and a mask of serenity settled on her features.  Her gun-metal gray bun wobbled as she gestured behind him. "You have a visitor."

"I don't want a visitor," said Martin. 

He caught the drop threatening to fall from the watering can’s spout and wiped his finger clean on his dress shirt.  The fabric rubbed against his chest like a second skin and exuded a faintly musty smell.  He focused his thoughts on categorizing the aroma, settling on a mix of sweat, dirt, and leather.

"Why don't you go brew some coffee, Adele," said the accented man.

"Are you sure, Father?"

Adele's title inspired Martin’s recollection and in his mind’s eye Father Bernard's face coalesced.  The Priest’s lean visage presided at stone alter, flanked by bouquets of lilies wrapped in indigo ribbons.  Laying on the platform before him—

Martin diverted his thoughts to the bookcase alongside his worktable.  Running his fingers along the spines he selected one on gastropods, and began searching for an identifying image for the slug within his terrarium.

Meanwhile, Adele shuffled out, pages crumpling under her feet.  The door failed to close behind her, and the flame in the oil lamp flickered with the escape of the room’s stuffy air, making the text on the book's splayed pages waver.

Martin scowled and readjusted the lamp.  "Would you mind closing that on your way out?"

"I thought we could have some coffee," said Bernard.

"I'm not interested."

"I am."

"Then suit yourself." 

Martin thumbed through the essay on garden slugs, and another on exotic species found in the rainforests by the Equator.  None fit his specimen, and he thumped the book shut.  Shelving the volume, he search for another, one on local flora and fauna he remembered wedging between two others after a brisk read.

"Would you mind if I sat?"

Martin jolted, reminded of the Priest's presence.  He glanced at Bernard. 

The Priest motioned with a slender hand to one in the pair of leather-backed chairs tucked by the curtained window.  A mountain of journals occupied the cushions.  

Martin recalled reading through the last twelve issues during the night.  He frowned, trying to calculate how long ago that had been.  Last night? The previous night?  His mental computation leapt to a week ago, on Sunday, after the ceremony—

"No," said Martin. 

He discarded the book in his hands, strode to the other side of the room and examined his globe.  Laying his fingertips on the chest high orb coated with shades of blue, green, and brown, he spun until the South American rainforests lay in view.

"Martin,” said Bernard.  “Come back to us.”

Between Martin's hands the continents, lines denoting rivers, and colors marking various countries swirled.  He heard Bernard shifting, piles landing with soft thuds on the carpet.

"How about some light, hum?"

Martin hunched his shoulders as Bernard pulled aside the thick, velvet curtains.  Afternoon light streamed around him, casting a shade of his form on the mahogany paneling the room.


Martin shrugged.  He glanced to either side, but found his worktable and more clutter pinning him in the corner, and providing no route of escape.

"Why don't you join me," said Bernard, "and we can talk?"  He grunted and Martin envisioned the twiggy man hefting one of the thicker tomes from the second chair.

Bernard gave a tinny yelp before the tumbling books made the lamp rattle in its perch.

"Sorry about that, Martin."

"It's nothing.  It's all nothing...."

"It's not nothing," said Bernard.  The leather groaned, flexing as it caught his figure on the seat cushion.  "Death happens, Martin."

Martin snapped his hands back from the globe, and pocketed both, hiding the ring threaded on his finger in his slacks.

"You should be relieved she went as quickly as she did."

Martin wheeled, his hands sudden fists trapped in tweed.  "What!?"

"Beatrice was in pain.  She went swiftly to a better place, a more peaceful place."

Martin scowled.  "Is that all you've come to tell me?"

"No," said Bernard.  He scooted to the chair’s lip, balanced his knobby elbow on similarly peaked knees, and clasped his hands.  "I came to help you live again."

"I'm living fine," said Martin. 

He stormed to his worktable and slapped his hands onto the counter.  His shoulders warmed beneath the lamp's glow, adding to the fueling fury swirling in his chest.

"You're dying.  Slowly," said Bernard.  "You can't think she would have wanted you to be like this."

"She didn't want to die either."

"Of course not," said Bernard.  "Some things can't be helped.  Others can.  You have a choice here."

"Choice?"  Martin snorted.  "Some choice."

"It's yours to make.  You can stay cloistered in here and from what Adele’s told me, probably starve yourself to death.  Or you can pick up your pieces, grieve, and move on."

"Move on?"  Martin spun, and the room seemed to chase itself.  He covered his eyes with one hand until physics regained command, and then refocused his glower on Bernard's passive figure.  "How am I supposed to move on?  This is not how it was supposed to be."

"Nothing is supposed to be anything," said Bernard.

Martin ground his teeth, gnashing the placating tone dribbling from the Priest's lips and staining the air.

"Life is what it is," said Bernard, his cadence oozing.  "You still have yours.  Think of the effect you might be able to have on hundreds, maybe thousands if you returned to your work.  Your colleagues have been asking about you, your students too.  Are you going to let them down?"

"The only person who's opinion I cared about is gone, so what does it matter?"

"How do you know she's gone?"

"Because I saw you put her into the ground," said Martin, his voice crackling as readily as the tremble in his arm pointing with accusation at Bernard’s hawkish nose.  "You covered her with dirt, you...."

Clamping his mouth shut, Martin sagged onto his worktable and dropped his chin to his chest.  Since the ceremony, tears had already come and drained him dry.  Even his shoulders failed to waver with the echo of sobs wracking him in the present.  A hushed silence embraced him, marred only by the rustle of papers.

"Oh…Excuse me," said a high baritone.

Martin put his back to the door, half spying the young Mr. Johnson, donned in a crisp khaki suit and carrying a silver tray with coffee pot and flock of china cups.

"Ms. Adele told me to bring these up.”  The young man’s voice warbled around his hesitation.  “But perhaps I should—“

"It's all right," said Bernard.  "Set them here." 

A shuffle denoted more sheets being gathered and piled onto the floor.  Saucers clinked against one another as Johnson placed the tray onto the side table sprouting between the two excavated chairs.

"Eddie Johnson," said the young man.

"Father Bernard.  You must be one of Mr. Adam's pupils."

Flesh smacked with their handshake.

"Yes sir…ah Father."

Martin stiffened as he sensed both men's gazes upon him.

"I wanted to stop by, Mr. Adams,” said Eddie, “and let you know some news."

Martin raised his gaze from the worktable and drifted over the bookcases.  "News?"

"Yes sir, great news, sir."  Eddie's words started racing.  "I got my acceptance letter to the University.  They let me in.  I thought...given everything that's been happening you might like to hear about it.  And I wanted to thank you as well.  I couldn't have gotten in without your recommendation, without all of your tutoring."

Martin pivoted slowly, wary of the room sprinting around again.  Eddie stepped back as if stunned by something in his face or eye.

Martin worked to smooth his features, and even gained a quirk to his lips.  "You did the work," he said and offered his hand, minor trembles and all.  "Congratulations, Eddie."

Eddie leapt over and cupped Martin's hand in both of his.  He pumped vigorously as if unsure how to stop once he'd started. 

"Thank you, sir.  Thank you."

Retrieving his limb, Martin listed back against the support of his worktable.  "I hope you've spread your news around."

"Oh, I have, sir. And I found out Paul Vends is looking at the same program.  I told him you might be able to help him, like you did for me.” 

Martin frowned, while Eddie’s mouth finally stopped into a fishy gape. 

"Vends, huh?"  Martin frowned, working up what he recalled of the young Mr. Vends academic record and personality.  

Meanwhile Eddie chewed on air, working up his next onslaught.  “I was also hoping….hoping you might be able to guide me during first quarter at least.  I'm afraid of getting overwhelmed with all of the medical details."

Eddie’s request glided over Martin’s diverted thoughts. 

Vends had a head for numbers, Martin recalled in the sudden quiet, although he had a tendency to wander especially when a female student or two neared.

Martin smirked at his chastisement.  If it hadn't been for your own wandering eye, he chided, you might never have met Beatrice. 

The thought of their first meeting flooded in his senses. Ankle-deep mud squelched around their boots, and their mutual preoccupation with the snails emerging from the muck remained engrossing, until they had butted heads leaning toward the same spiraled mollusk.

Martin’s chest tightened as he saw Beatrice, her heart-shaped face damped by rain and cheeks flushed with a complimentary rose.  Her smile lingered, the heady gleam in her mossy eyes sparkling.  He heard her words that day as clear as if she whispered in his ear.

"Go ahead." 

She had motioned him forward on the snail’s trail.  Instead, he'd held out his hand, and after a brief moment of consideration, she'd slipped her fingers onto his palm, and they'd gone forward together.


Eddie's voice plunged Martin back into his study.  He dropped his gaze, and dove into the soil-dark carpet revealed through the scattered pages and tomes.  A passageway led from his loafers through the clutter and Martin found his eyes locked upon the open doorway.

"Go ahead," whispered against his ear.

Martin gulped a sudden swell of grief twined with unexpected relief.  He raked a hand over his face, and then turned to Eddie and Bernard, both waiting with concerned expressions.

"The first rule to avoid overwhelming yourself in the first quarter," said Martin, "is coffee."  He gestured for Eddie to pour.  "We'll start there.”  He met Bernard’s gaze and dipped his head in a brief nod of thanks.  “I'm sure Father Bernard wouldn't mind staying.  He seems overflowing with good advice today.”

"It would be a pleasure," said Bernard.

Martin stuffed his hands back into his slack's pockets while the glug of the dark brew filled the cups.  Fingertips seemed to brush his skin and he clasped tight, bent on keeping hold no matter where his next step lay.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Greener Grass - No. 267

Exiting the limo, Roche raised her hand and pressed her slender fingers tight.  She managed to block the majority of the blinding flashes as cheers crashed upon her from all sides.

"Put your arm down," whispered Gil, emerging from the car’s front passenger seat.

Grimacing, Roche lowered her hand.

The flanking crowds pressed in, their swell making the barricades rattle.   Looming before her, Stan held out his arms, pushing back the tide and gaining a circle of breathing room.  Roche hurried on in Stan’s wake as he pushed forward.

Gil trotted behind her, keeping his prodding demand close.  "Quit squinting," he whispered.

Mindful of his tirade about the wrinkles they might deepen, Roche forced her eyes wider.  She swept her gaze up and over the crowd splayed against the corridor leading to the hotel’s entrance like bugs on a windshield.  She smiled as her aim avoided the ceaseless snap and pop of flashbulbs and camera phones.  

The cheers roared on, until she thought the ground should shake.  Shouted phrases or questions bombarded them, the words lost in the torrent.

"Wave," whispered Gil.

Roche strode behind Stan's monstrous bulk, and lifted her arm like a fluid ribbon up into the afternoon heat.  With her cheeks burning from her stapled smile, she spun once, the stilettos providing two trivial pivot points.  The motion swirled her dress’ cyan-hued skirts and earned another surge of cheers.

The hotel's awning provided a crisp edge of shade and Roche settled back into the parade route.  Those flanking their passageway thinned as the terrain shifted from public sidewalk to private property.

At the other end of the red carpet, a leather faced bellhop opened a glass door.  His grin quirked to the side, and he straightened his shoulders beneath his uniform's weight.

"Thank you," said Roche.

"Miss," said the bellhop adding a tip of his hat.

Roche winced as Gil's sigh expressed his irritation.  He shuffled her through the entrance before her courtesy for the normal folk led her into any unplanned conversations.

The dearth of noise within the lobby's expanse left her feeling hollow, and her stride staggered as if a crutch had been taken away.  Roche steadied as the clack of her heels and the slap of Gil's loafers provided their own blare.  Eerily, Stan's shoes never made a sound. 

He hovered like a massive shadow as they arrived at the elevator bank.  Gil pecked the button half a dozen times, none of which made the lift arrive any sooner.  He checked his watch, the golden band glittering in the chandelier’s glow, and tapped his similarly shiny loafers.

The elevator dinged, and the doors split, revealing an elderly couple dressed for the evening.

"Excuse us," said the snowy-haired gentleman, a thick Russian accent warming the air.

Gil sputtered, but Roche nudged him aside with a grin for the husband and wife, not to mention the surprising anonymity.  The older woman adjusted her shawl as her companion prevented the doors from closing, and then they glided as one into the early evening.

Darting into the elevator, Gil stabbed at the penthouse button, grumbling under his breath about increased advertising in the European markets.

Roche listed against the back wall as the elevator doors closed, and shut her eyes, blocking the reflection of her standing between the bookends of Stan and Gil.  Their presence lingered like annoying flies, ones she couldn't bat away.

After passing stories punctuated by Gil's toe tapping and the lifts electronic hum, the doors hushed open.  Again, Gil stormed through, already digging out the suite's card from his suit coat pocket.

Stan motioned for her to precede him, and Roche sighed.

"I'm going, I'm going," she whispered.

Gil had the door wide and his PDA in hand by the time Stan had her herded into the penthouse. 

The crisp scent of clean sheets, towels, and vacuuming hung in the air.  Pinned drapes revealed the coastline, the surf rolling in on the beach mottled with tiny blots of color for each tourist or local catching the last of the sun's rays.  With a click, the suite's entrance closed, cutting off the hallway and the route back into the world below.

Roche perched on the couch's arm rest, crossed her arms, and stared down at the view.

Gil paced through the sitting area, tapping at his screen.  "Good crowd huh?"

"Yeah," said Roche.  "I guess staying under the radar was too much to ask."

"You're a celebrity now, people want to know what you're up to, where you are, what you're wearing.  You gotta want that, right?"

"What I really want is a car," whispered Roche.

"Sure, sure," said Gil, staring into his PDA.  "We can probably do a voice over, an endorsement, or something.  What were you thinking?"

"I'm not talking about an endorsement," said Roche.  "I want one for me."

"We might be able to swing one in the deal."  Gil halted and quivered as his thoughts churned.  "Yeah, I bet they'd agree. I mean every time you drive around it'd be like free publicity."

"No," said Roche.  She swiveled and caught him with her gaze.  "You're not getting my point.  I want a car so I can get away from this, at least for a little while.  Something every day, something that's not going to stand out, with plates people won't recognize."

Gil's eyes bugged as if she had punched him in the gut.  "But...."

"Gil, please.  I'm going to burst if I don't get some quiet time, some time alone."

"You get plenty in here.  Not like Stan and I are always around."

Roche dropped into the couch's cushions and drew a stiff pillow into a close hug.  "I want to go someplace real and me for a while."

"You're famous now, kid.  Being alone is kind of out of question."

"It is if I don't fight for it," whispered Roche.  She set her chin on the pillow's braided edge and stared up at Gil.

Gil shook his head but she saw his stubbornness begin to waver.  "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Gilbert."

Gil's mouth flashed with a half-grin, one that softened the aggressive glint in his eye.  "Get some rest, kid.  You've got a big day tomorrow."

"You said that yesterday."

Gil smirked.  "They're all big now."

"Goodie," said Roche.  She sank deeper into the couch.

"See you at 7," said Gil, "remember to wear that blue number so you don't clash with Mr. Denabrio at breakfast."

"That was serious?"

Gil shrugged.  "Verbatim from his people: only the Director wears warm colors." 

"Wow," said Roche, "that's insane."

"I don't make the rules."

"Yeah, I know," said Roche.

"The blue one, okay?" 

Roche rolled her eyes and landed back in the view.  "I'll remember."

Gil finished with his PDA and then started for the door.  "You need anything else?"

"No," said Roche, "but thanks." 

Stan moved to follow Gil as if silently beckoned.

"Night, Stan," said Roche.

"Miss," said Stan, the word emerging like a primordial grunt.

The two exited the suite, the door clicking shut again.  Gazing out the windows, Roche sank into the couch's squishy embrace, and daydreamed about cooling sands between her toes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Internal Affairs - No. 265

Roger slammed Fredericks’ report down, rattling the ballpoint pen lying on his desk’s blotter.


Gritting his teeth, Roger flexed the pages and glowered at the report's concluding paragraphs.  Another bellow began worming up his throat by the time his office door swooped open.

"Sir?"  Maureen filled the threshold, her tweed pantsuit rustling.  She raised both brows while keeping one hand on the earpiece inserted beneath a tumble of bleached blonde hair.

"Get me Fredericks, now.  This is unacceptable."  Roger pitched the report toward the door.  It skipped like a stone on a pond, and then thudded to a stop on the plush industrial carpet.

"Yes, sir," said Maureen.  Her façade never wavered as she walked forward on pointed heels and retrieved the document.

"And a fresh cup of coffee too."  Roger checked his Rolex and squinted at the early evening hour.  "Decaf."

"Yes, sir." 

Roger waved a dismissive hand and swiveled in his chair, absorbing the skyscrapers glittering in florescent illumination.


He scowled at the warble in Maureen's tone.  "What?"

"You have two visitors."

"Are they scheduled?"

"No," said Maureen, "but I think you should see them."

"I think I should be deciding that don't you?"

"Of course sir.  But...."

Glaring at her reflection, Roger stewed over Maureen's insistence.  She was rarely so adamant without reason. 

Smoothing his features, he firmed his voice.  "Send them in."

"Yes, sir."

The door clicked shut.  Roger heaved to his feet and set his hands on his hips, the hem of his suit coat fluttering.  Staring at the array of lights twinkling in the city below, he worked up his response to Fredericks' mediocre report.  As he debated between a demotion and the complications of an outright dismissal, a knock smacked against his office door.

"Come in, Maureen."

Dropping back into his chair, Roger swiveled, and plucked the pen, twirling it between his fingers.

"This way, gentlemen," said Maureen, gesturing through the entrance with a graceful sweep of her arm.

Two men, both in crisp suits in opposite shades of gray, entered.  The first, sporting a silvery comb-over and tie too wide to be of the present decade, strode slowly across the room and halted before the desk.  The second, in a stylish charcoal jacket and slacks, nodded to Maureen.

"Thank you, Miss."

Maureen pursed her lips together, and bobbed her head.  Roger didn't bother meeting her eyes when they darted to him.  She exited, closing the door with a hushed snap.

The older of the pair widened his stance and pocketed both hands into his suit coat.  "Good evening, Mr. Bertsham."

Roger smirked and met the man’s spear-sharp blue eyes.  "I'm afraid I'm not as well informed," he said, hiding his irritation.

"Andy Landon, I'm from the IRS."

"I'm sure you have some proof of that," said Roger, cocking a skeptical eyebrow.

Landon's smile quirked on one side.  "Certainly."  He dug into a breast pocket and retrieved a leather wallet.  "This is my associate," he said, handing over the billet and thumbing at the man perusing the contents of the mahogany bookshelves.  "Jeremy Masters."

Opening the wallet, Roger skimmed over Landon’s glimmering badge, raised department's icon, and the identification card’s textual details. 

"This seems in order," he said, offering back the wallet.  "What can I do for you?"

Landon took his time stuffing the wallet away, and working up a reply.  "We investigating into a particular account, a financial company with whom you've invested a great deal."

Setting the pen down, Roger leaned back and folded his hands onto his lap.  "I wasn’t aware the IRS does investigations."

"We're part of an elite branch," said Landon. "One that looks into the most...interesting of situations."

"I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."

"RW-42," said Landon, accentuating each letter and number.

Roger's stomach quivered, but he kept the ill vibe from showing in his features.  "It may be in my portfolio,” he said with a heavy dose of nonchalance.

"I'm sure we'll be able to confirm that."

"Don't you need warrants for those kinds of things?"

"Yes," said Landon, "they're pending."

Roger grunted.  "Well if you find anything out of order I'm sure you'll be in touch."

"I'm sure we will." 

Roger shifted in his chair, his nerves beginning to chip.  "So how can I help you tonight?"

Landon swept his gaze around the room before returning with an intrigued air.  "We're surveying the situation.  Getting a base for how things are.  I'm sure you can appreciate the benefit in being thorough before moving ahead with any transaction."

"Of course.  But there's also something to be said about showing your hand early."

"Is that what I've done?"

"That would imply I have something to hide," said Roger.

"Do you?"

Roger bristled.  "You can't believe I'm going to answer that question without a lawyer present."

Landon shrugged. "Sometimes I get lucky."

"There are stupid people out there, Mr. Landon. I assure you I am not one of them."  Landon's smile stretched again, irking Roger's blooming exasperation.  Tipping forward, he intertwined his fingers, and rested them on his desk's blotter.  "Is there anything I can actually help you gentlemen with or is your intent to waste my time?"

"I assure you, Mr. Bertsham,” said Landon, his mirroring words oozing, “I would never do something so hazardous to your wellbeing."

"Then if you don't mind, I have other matters needing my attention."

"On a Friday night?"

Roger narrowed his eyes.  "You don't build an empire by taking the weekends off."

"Must be why I'm still in a studio apartment." 

Landon extended his hand but Roger barely gave the man’s rough palm a glance.

"Been a pleasure, Mr. Bertsham."  Landon withdrew and stuffed his hands back into his coat pockets.  "I imagine the next time will be even more memorable." 

Roger frowned.  "Next time?"

"Oh, we'll be back,” said Landon, his smile reappearing.  “I'm nothing if not thorough."

"Then I hope you get what you're after.  I hate to see my tax dollars misspent, and I can't imagine you'll find anything digging around here."

"My imagination will astound you," said Landon.  He bobbed his head in farewell.

As he strode past his associate, Masters turned from his perusal.  He offered a similar nod. 

"Evening, Mr. Bertsham."

Roger stared over his steepled fingers as they exited. 

Maureen hovered at the threshold, and peered inside.


Roger held up a quieting hand and she froze.  The duo's footsteps thudded against the floor, making the frames of the art lining in corridor clatter.  An elevator's ding echoed, the hush of doors opening and closing finally taking the presence of his recent visitors from Roger's floor.

"Get me Aspen."

"But sir," said Maureen, her eyes going wide and words rushing with uncharacteristic speed. "Mr. Jones' secretary said not to call in the evenings."

"I don't give a damn," said Roger, rising to his feet. "Get him on the phone, or you'll be dealing with more than his pissed off secretary."

"Yes, sir."

Maureen scampered toward her desk, allowing the door to close on its own. 

Roger stared at the sealed panel, his breaths coming in ragged inhales and exhales.  Each strained his Egyptian cotton dress shirt already dampened with his sweat.

"Calm down," he whispered to himself.

Grabbing the armrests, he lowered himself onto the plush cushion, hoping the chair would not fall out from under him.  He braced himself against the desk, drinking in the stability provided by the weighty furniture.  He had his breathing under control by the time the bulb winked on his blocky phone-unit.

"Get a hold of yourself," he said to the crimson light.  "You've gotten out of worse."

He seized his nerves and snagged the receiver. 


The typical silence replied. 

“This is Roger.  We've had a complication."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fallen Stars - No. 257

Bert maneuvered down the airplane's aisle.  The roller bag behind him glided at his heels as he perused the seat numbers.  Near the tail, row thirty-four gaped, like the unanswered questions Tabitha's call had left hanging in his ear. 

Upon each of the three chairs on the right hand side, folded seatbelts gleamed.  Hefting his bag into the overhead bin, wheels first, Bert claimed the window seat.  He grimaced, bumping his elbow onto the bulkhead and discovering less room than the backseat of a car or even his cluttered office.  Resigning himself to the threadbare cushion, he fastened his belt over his lap and gazed out the window. 

Airport vehicles darted through the flurries starting outside, each cart scurrying like a collection of manic toy cars.  The similar image on his screen saver, with its sped up orbiting projectiles, appeared in his mind's eye, teasing with solved equations and understood patterns. 

Shifting his attention to the other passengers, Bert diverted his brain's churn to calculations on the probability the middle seat might remain vacant.

Around him, row thirty-three and thirty-five filled. An elderly gentleman, who appeared on the verge of sleep, sagged into thirty-four C.  The crowd of those standing about began thinning as seats were claimed and the lower numbered rows began boarding.

Bert exhaled, allowing his mantis legs to drift into the middle seat's terrain.  Slouching down, he folded his arms over his navy fleece and listed his head onto the curved bulkhead.  He shut his eyes, and ignored the bustle, murmured apologies, and thumps of closing bins, and tried escaping the echo of Tabitha’s voice in the blackness of sleep.

The tittered banter of one woman whittled into his near doze.  Bert squinted, and spotted her rotund figure as she worked down the aisle.  Against her chest and ample ski-jacket, she hauled a scarlet bag like an enormous ruby.  Stopping at each row, she peered at the numbers, and into the opened bins.

A steward tromped passed Bert's row, her trajectory aimed on an intercept course. The stomp of her practical flats shook the floor. 

"Can I help you, ma'am?"

"Oh!  Hello.  I'm in Row 34.  Seat B," said the woman, her cheeks flushed.  "But I'm not sure where I can put this."

"Let see," said the steward, a strained smile on her lips.  She snooped into the overhead bins like a detective seeking a culprit, cracking up and down one lid after another.  "How about here?"

The woman shuffled forward, and heaved the bag to her shoulder with a constipated grunt.  With the steward's help, they wedged her luggage between a roller bag and stout backpack.  After two tries, the steward managed to close the lid and then backpedaled, waving the woman toward the one remaining empty spot in plane’s final rows.

"Take your seat, ma'am," said the steward, "we'll be heading out in a minute."

"Of course.  Sorry."

Rocking from his chair, the elderly man rose, providing the woman as much access as the plane's confines allowed.

"Thank you," said the woman.  She sucked in her gut and batted down the front of her puffy jacket a radioactive shade of green.  With her breath held, she waddled into the row like a bulbous crab.

Bert nudged closer to the window as she plopped down beside him. 

She grinned.  "Well isn't this cozy?"

Bert offered a lean smile, and tilted aside as the woman worked into her seatbelt.  She smoothed coat's fluff, and wiggled between the armrests.

"There we are," she said with a contented titter. 

Bert's stomach plunged as she extended a meaty hand. 

"Hi, I'm Melba."

Frowning, Bert shook her hand.  "Like the toast?"

Melba chortled.  "You don't know how many times I've heard that."

Bert hoped she wouldn't indulge him with a recounting of each. 

"Bert," he said, tucking his arms back across his chest and settling against the window.

Melba failed to pick up the hint in his body language.  "Are you stopping in Chicago?"

"No," said Bert. 

"Where will you be flying today then?"  Her smile stretched, and she giggled at what she apparently perceived as a humorous mimic of a steward's questioning tone.


"Oh!  I bet Phoenix is lovely this time of year."


"Any where's warmer than Buffalo.  Are you going for business or pleasure?"

"Ah...."  Bert raised his brows, and contemplated the two choices.  Business seemed the safer reply.

"Oh," said Melba, "what do you do?"

"I'm an astrophysicist."

"Really?" Mable's eyes widened. "You"

"Yeah," said Bert.

"You must work at the university then."

Bert nodded, but Melba barely paused for the confirmation.

"What's in Phoenix for an astrologist?"

"Astrophysicist," said Bert. 

Melba blinked, the correction impacting her like a light bulb flickering on within a galaxy. 

He sighed.  "A meteor shower deposited some...some space rocks.  I'm going to take a look at them."

"What are you hoping to find?  Aliens or something?"

Bert shrugged.  "I'm not sure."

Melba cocked her head.  "So why are you going?"

Glancing down, Bert plucked invisible lint from his ebony jeans.  Tabitha's worried voice over the static-laced line flooded his thoughts.  The goose bumps as she described the meteor's unusual characteristics pebbled Bert's skin beneath his winter gear.

"You're guaranteed not to find anything if you don't look," he whispered.

With her mouth forming a silent "o", Melba nodded as if he had relayed some sage advice.

Shaking himself from the hours-old phone conversation, Bert settled on Melba, who stared at him with silent but hungry expectation. 

Suppressing a sigh, he indulged the inevitable.  "What about you?"

Melba beamed as the conversation changed tack.  "I'm visiting my sister.  She lives just outside of Chicago with her husband Roy and their kids, Betty, Oliver, David, and little Susie."

Bert tuned out as Melba droned on about her nieces and nephews, each apparently more impressive than the last.  He nodded appropriately when Melba noted some of the children’s less than glorious moments and "oh’d" as necessary when they had redeemed themselves with some thoughtful, surprising, or heartwarming act. 

Tabitha's concern, however, rang in his ears, undercutting the awkwardness in their first-argument free conversation since she'd departed for greener pastures, and the meteor's troubling details. 

" I'm going to see if I can help her out and take things from there," said Melba.  Her grin stretched, yearning for approval.

"Imagine that," said Bert, meeting Melba's gaze, "me too."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Animal Instincts - No. 251

The paper-wrapped handles dug into Brigit's palms.  She shifted the two department store bags from her left hand to her right, joining the already dangling trio, and swung around her purse.  Fishing out her keys, she unlocked the door.  She winced as she entered, and shushed the rustling bags.

"Honey,” said Carl, “is that you?"

"Um, yeah," said Brigit, flicking her gaze around the front hall.  She darted to the closet, flung open the door, and shoved the quintet of purchases inside.  One toppled, and a shoe box tumbled, splitting open and revealing the gleam on a pair of faux snake skin boots.  Giving them a swift nudge with her foot, Brigit forced the door closed by the time Carl rounded the corner from the living room.

"You okay?"

"Yeah," said Brigit, feigning a struggle with her purse's straps and leopard print coat.  "What are you doing home?"

"The game ended an hour ago."

"Oh," said Brigit.  She made a move for the closet, cringed, and then draped her coat over her arm.

"Here."  Carl set one hand on her coat, the other on the closet's knob.

"It's okay," said Brigit.  "I...ah…." 

She fumbled for an excuse in the face of Carl's frown.  The door opened with his undeterred motion.  Boots and bags slid out like an accessorized avalanche.  She stared at the assortment even as Carl froze.


"I know, I know," whispered Brigit.

"You said you were going to stop."

She bowed her head and shut her eyes tight as if the pressure might make the scene before her vanish. 

"I just went to the mall to pick up those sun glasses, but they needed a half hour to finish.  I started walking around, killing time, and the next thing I knew I had my hands full."

"These didn't leap off the shelf, Brig."

"No.  But I ran into Amanda, and you should have seen what she was wearing.  Talk about fashionable.  I might as well have been wearing cardboard."  She looked up at Carl who seemed unimpressed.

Sighing, she pivoted and leaned against the wall, her gaze drifting down to the shopping bag clutter.  "I just needed to keep up."

"What you're upping is your credit card debt."

She glared at him.  "Well, they are mine."

Carl didn't wilt.  "It's our credit score."

Brigit rolled her eyes and settled back on the tiger striped blouse slinking out of a collapsing bag.  "We can pay it off."

"But do you really want to be spending like this?  How many things do you need that look like animals? Your closet's a zoo."

"It's fashionable."

"It's a fad.  In six months it's going to be all about wearing red or sweatpants or something."  He swept a hand at the bags.  "What are you going to do then?"

"Buy more."


"I know I know," said Brigit, hunching her shoulders beneath his scolding tone.

She heaved off the wall, and shambled down the hall, leaving the clothing littering her wake. Plopping down into the living room's paisley armchair, she let her coat and purse fall to the spongy carpet.  Carl followed, and perched on the coffee table facing her.  He leaned his elbows on his knees and interlaced his fingers.  Silence stretched between them, and Brigit stared through her zebra inspired skirt.

Carl exhaled, his breath weighty with frustration, but he kept his voice even.  "What are we going to do about this?"

She shrugged one shoulder and kept her gaze diverted from the concerned she knew would be lingering in Carl's eyes. 

He stood, and walked into the kitchen.  The junk drawer rattled when he opened it, sifted through the contents, and then slid the drawer shut.  Plucking up her purse, he reclaimed his seat.

Brigit locked onto the ruby red handles of the pair of scissors he set beside him while working her wallet free. Her heart began thumping like prey in a predator’s sights.  Unclasping the fastener, Carl splayed open the array of plastic cards tucked neatly into the leather's slots.  He collected the scissors and offered them, handle first.

"You promised me last time."

Brigit's eyes grew wide and she met Carl's expectant expression.  A nervous chuckle rippled off her lips.  "It was a joke."

"You promised."

"Carl, you can't be serious."

He cleared his throat with a cough, his voice emerging in a mimicking octave.  "I, Brigit Johnson, swear to shred my credit cards the next time I shop just to shop, rather than shopping for what I need."  Carl cocked an eyebrow.  "I still have the signed agreement."

"You didn't."

"It's in my closet."

"At least I use mine for what it's supposed to be used for, rather than blackmailing my spouse."

"His and her's, hon."

She glared but again, Carl never flinched. Quelling her rising nerves, Brigit worked her lips in a dimpled grin, the one that usually diverted Carl's thoughts from anything resembling responsibility. 

"You're not going to just cut them up."

He shifted on the table, but then waggled the wallet and scissors, regaining his concentration with what would usually have been an admirable sense of determination. 

"I'm not, Brig.  You are."

"You can't make me."

"No," he said, "I can't." He set the scissors onto the table and stood.   Pocketing his hands, he shrugged.  "You wanted my help.  That's what I think you need to do.  Either that or this is just going to keep spiraling."

"But Amanda—"

"I don't care about Amanda,” he said, his voice finally snapping.  “I care about you."

Brigit looked away, but like magnets, the scissor's gleaming blades drew her gaze. 

Tipping forward, Carl placed a kiss on her cheek before striding from the living room.  The door to the den opened and closed, his descending tread on the stairs quieting once he reached the bottom. 

Brigit bit her lip and shifted her gaze to the waiting credit cards.  Worn edges and faded front faces stared back, each looking fatigued from their efforts.  Their weariness leapt across the intervening space and settled in her bones.  Heaviness draped her, as if she wore a coat of lead.

The thought made her chuckle.  "I'd probably buy that too."

Shaking her head, she sat forward and seized the scissors.  She plucked the top card from its slot and scissored the blades.  Staring at the sharp edges, she wondered if cutting granted the same satisfaction as swiping plastic through the card reader.

"I guess there’s only one way to find out."

Monday, November 7, 2011

At Sea - No. 238

A gruff hand seized Sawyer's shoulder, jolting him from a beach-inspired dream.

"You're on," said Hyde.

Peeling apart his sleepy lids, Sawyer spied the mountainous man dropping into his hammock slung below without even bothering to hide an expansive yawn.  The nails attaching the strip of fabric to the ship's posts groaned under Hyde's weight, and the man’s briny musk rippled through the cramped quarters.

"Up," whispered Sawyer.

Heaving from his recline, Sawyer ducked low, preventing his head from hitting the underside of the deck's planks.  He clambered out of bed while Hyde began snoring.

Seizing his boots from where he'd discarded them what felt like brief minutes ago, Sawyer tugged them over his breeches' hem.  He grabbed his coat from its peg, and thrust his arms into the sleeves as he made his way to the door.

The ship’s sway caught his initial stride, but he settled into the undulating gait within a pair of steps.

Mounting the ladder, he poked through the hatch. A night gust swept across the deck, rattling rigging and fluttering the tied down sails.

Emerging from the hold, Sawyer nodded to Jackson as the leather-faced sailor manned the rudder through the spoked wheel set up at the stern.  Sawyer strode along the deck's perimeter before ascending the platforms' steps and joining the other man on watch.

"Been quiet?"

"So far," said Jackson.

Standing beside the stouter man, Sawyer gazed down the length of the ship, toward the bow and the ongoing night before them.  Stars twinkled like watchful eyes through the masts and booms.

Sawyer pulled his coat close.  "What's our heading?"

"The Captain said to keep due West until morning," said Jackson.

"Doesn't that seem a little direct?"

Jackson shrugged.  "Not my place to question the order."

Sawyer grunted.

"We got away," said Jackson.  "No one's going to catch us out here."


Pivoting, Sawyer leaned against the back rail, watching the ship’s wake stir the darkened waters.  Foam trailed off toward the lightening horizon like an arrow aimed at land.  The ship rocked with the steady sail and swift current, and as night passed, indigo skies gave way to violet and peach.

Straightening from his slouch, Sawyer rubbed at his eyes as posts appeared, silhouetted by the rising morning.  A second glance confirmed the masts, growing like weeds out of the sea.

"Jackson."  Without taking his gaze from the vessels behind them, Sawyer laid a hand on the other man's shoulder.

"What, boy?"

"Tell me what you see."

With an irritated mumble, Jackson shifted.  He set one hand on the rail, the other on the wheel, keeping the ship on course.  In his peripheral vision, Sawyer saw Jackson's scowl ebb into raised brows.

"What is it?"

"I'm not sure," said Sawyer.

They watched the gathering force in silence for a few moments.  Sawyer began counting, reached twenty and stopped as the chasing ships dropped their sails and caught the morning's offshore winds.  A plume of smoke rose from one, an acknowledging puff from another, and then the signal worked through the armada.

"We better wake the Captain," said Jackson.

"We better grow wings," whispered Sawyer.

He stared at the taut fabric bringing their enemies closer with every gust while his stomach dropped to his feet like an anchor.  After a final glare, Sawyer turned away and yanked on the warning bell posted by the wheel.  The peal shattered the quiet.  As the din echoed over the water, he heard pounding beneath the deck as the crew awoke.

In the cabin under his feet, the floorboards creaked.  A heartbeat later a door opened and closed again with a clack.  With a steady tread, the Captain ascended the stairs, thumbs looped at his belt beside a holstered pistol and saber.

Without a word, Sawyer pointed over their stern.

The Captain smirked.  "The Admiral seems unhappy with us, boys."

"Looks that way, Captain," said Sawyer.  "What are we going to do?"

Sawyer froze as the Captain caught him in an unwavering stare.

"We're going to do as we promised, Sawyer.  They've entrusted us."

"Paid well for it too," said Jackson.

The Captain snorted his agreement.  "We've taken the job.  We'll get it done."

"Yes, sir," said Sawyer.

The Captain swiveled to face the dozen men on deck, standing in a loose clump awaiting orders.

"Get us underway."  He set his hands upon the ship's railing, confidence washing off of him in waves.  "We've got a message to deliver."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Acceptance - No. 233

The red flag sprouted from the side of the mailbox, indicating delivered contents.

"Maybe it's not here yet," said Walter.

"They said six weeks for a reply."  Staring at the box, Bethany chewed her lower lip.  Dust and a film of mulch melted onto her tongue, providing a taste of the surrounding fields.

Stopping the nervous chomp, she scrubbed her mouth with the inside of her checkered flannel, dousing the countryside flavors in hand-washed cotton.  She took the mailbox tab between her thumb and index finger.  The sun-warmed metal heated her skin.  Her touch vibrated the box upon the twiggy stand she remembered watching Walter and Pa hammering into the earth.

After a jerk, the lid opened.  Edges of envelopes faced her along with a rolled newspaper.  She retrieved the lot, cradling the bundle in the crook of one arm.  Tossing Walter the newspaper, she flipped through those remaining.

"Well, Bets?"

Bethany scowled, pitched bills and a letter from Aunt Margery at Walter, and then stood stock still.  The return address stared back at her, the pressure of the type bars depressing each letter.

Holding out the other mail, she released the bundle, absently hoping Walter might be there to catch.

With her hands shaking, Bethany turned the envelope over.  She worked her nail between the back flap and adhesive, gingerly peeling the two apart.  Once opened, she plucked the single sheet and unfolded the page with care.

A swell of wind rippled across the upper edge, bending the corner and obscuring the letterhead and salutation.  Holding her breath, she skipped to the initial paragraph, her eyes darting from word to word.


Surfacing from the contents, she met her brother's wide-eyed stare.  She felt her mouth beginning to curve, her eyes to water.  Before she could even relay the news, he dropped the rest of the mail, scooped her up, and swung her around, her legs flying, the page fluttering.  He set her down, and howled with victory.

"I knew it!"

"Hush," said Bethany, fighting to regain her breath, and waiting for the world to cease spinning.  "He'll hear."


She bit her lip again, and clutched the letter close.  "You know Pa's not going to be so happy."


"I'll be leaving, just like Mom—"

The screen door opened with a thump.  "What's going on Walt?"

Bethany winced, and slipped behind Walter's broad shoulder.  "Just the mail, Pa."

Hearing his footsteps creak upon the porch slats, Bethany cringed.  She lowered her voice.  "Is he coming?"

"Of course he is," said Walter.  "He's not daft.  He knows something's up."

"What am I going to do?"

Turning around, Walter grabbed her shoulders.  He straightened her as if hefting a bale of hay.  "You tell him the truth."

Giving her a firm nod, Walter began collecting the scattered mail.  Bethany squared to her father as he traipsed down the front path, dust wafting from his dungarees and the sweat-stained tee-shirt plastered to his bony torso.  He stopped at the opened gate, and set a calloused hand on the picket.


Bethany tightened her grasp on the letter.  "I...I got into school, Pa."

Walter, his hands full of the retrieved mail, side stepped, preventing anything from intercepting their father's scowl.


"College," said Bethany.

His knuckles turned as white as the fence’s flecked paint.

"It's only a day's bus ride away."  Bethany extended the letter.  "And they offered to pay for everything."

"She got a full scholarship," said Walter.

Pa held up a quieting hand, and Walter shuffled back a stride.  Seizing the letter, Pa dragged his gaze to the typed offer.  When he finished, his hand dropped as if made of lead, his head bowing.

Bethany glanced at Walter, his worried frown latched upon their father's downturned face.  Stepping forward, Bethany laid a tentative hand on Pa’s bare fingers, tense upon the fence post.


Looking up, he wrapped both arms around her, smothering her in his chest.  His hot breath wet the top of her head.

"I don't have to go, Papa," she said, her words muffled.  "I can stay.  I won't be like her, I won't leave."

"No, no," he said into her raven hair's center part.  "My little girl's going to go to college.  She's going to go be somebody."

"I promise I'll come back, Pa.  Every holiday, every vacation."

"I know you will."  He slackened his arms, and cupped her chin with one hand.  The scarlet rim around his eyes glittered.  "You're going to do us proud out there won't you?"

His face blurred with the tears pooling in Bethany's eyes.  She nodded dumbly, and then leapt back into his arms.  Her father released her long enough to drag Walter into their embrace.  She savored their musky stench and their body heat, knowing neither could be packed in the bags she'd take when she finally departed for a wider world.